Call it Samhain, All Saints, Guy Fawkes, or Halloween

State of play

Believing that things are not what they used to be is a viral disease that strikes as you enter adulthood and gets worse with age, says folklorist Steve Roud. One symptom is the perennial complaint that children do not play proper games any more. In 1804, the demise of childhood games was attributed to the destructive effect of building over village greens and commons in the Scots Magazine; in 1860, it was the lack of playgrounds and the prohibition on street games that Lord Shaftesbury blamed for the decline of marbles, hoops, and tip-cat. More recently, the baleful influence of cinema and wireless, of TV, computer games and iPods, and now of modern teaching methods, and health and safety concerns have been added to the list.

Fifty years on from his own childhood, and 50 years after the publication of Peter and Iona Opie’s pioneering study of The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, Steve Roud has visited primary-schools the length and breadth of Britain and reports in his new book The Lore of the Playground that all is well in the schoolyard – children have not lost the ability to play imaginative games, it is adults who have lost the ability to make sense of what is going on amidst the apparently random and chaotic playtime activity. Modern children have just as rich a repertoire of games as had his generation, Steve says, and many of the games, rhymes, jokes, and rituals played out in contemporary playgrounds are recognisable as new variations on old themes that go back perhaps for hundreds of years.

Chasing games that would once have featured cops and robbers, or cowboys and Indians, now involve aliens and zombies, or different sorts of dinosaurs. The once ubiquitous eeny, meeny, miny, mo has been joined by new rhymes such as black shoe, black shoe, change your black shoe, O U T spells out. If you want to take time out of a game, you can still cross your fingers and shout ‘crucis’ in the Cotswolds, ‘fainites’ in London, ‘barley’ in the Midlands, ‘kings and crosses’ in East Anglia and ‘skinch’ in the north east. Girls still play skilful clapping and skipping games with the occasional reference to underwear, though today it is Madonna’s conical bra that is ridiculed in rhyme rather than granny’s voluminous knickers hanging on the washing line. Boys still buy marbles – but to collect and swap; Steve notes that they no longer play with them because the idea that you might lose your prize possessions in a game is seen as strange and incomprehensible.

Stepping across the River Dove is no longer a challenge – nor as much fun.

Is there a recipe for encouraging games? Yes, says Steve: ban football and all forms of organised sport, which monopolise playground space and squeeze out more creative games. Provide an interesting environment, with steps, doorways, drain covers, and shapes and lines painted on the floor that children can incorporate into their games – they, their imaginations, and the culture of the playground, handed down from one generation to the next, will do the rest.

A concrete countryside

Cries of ‘spoilsport’ were heard earlier this year, not in the playground but on the banks of the River Dove where Dovedale’s centuries-old stepping stones (some say Medieval, some Prehistoric) that have delighted generations of children, have had their eroded and uneven tops levelled to reduce the risk of slipping off.

The stepping stones are mentioned in Izaak Walton’s book The Compleat Angler (‘to come to this fine stream at the head of this great pool, you must venture over these slippery, cobbling stones’), and their weathered and uneven shapes made them appear a natural part of the landscape, as a result of which they have appeared on countless postcards and calendars, and in the Hollywood movie Robin Hood.

Locals complain that all the pleasure has now gone from crossing the Dove: ‘the river is only a few inches deep so even if you slipped off the old stones it was hardly a disaster – it was part of the fun,’ said one. A Derbyshire County Council spokesman said: ‘over the years the high usage has worn the stones and this meant there was a large discrepancy in the crossing’s level from bank to bank. The National Trust asked us to look at the stepping stones so we brought them up to a consistent height.’

The move prompted a barrage of comment on a Facebook site calling on the National Park authorities, the County Council, and the National Trust to reverse the work. ‘We should boycott the countryside,’ said one, ‘and refuse to live there or visit it until safety improves: paths should be concrete, handrails should be fitted to every mountain, rivers should be fenced behind hazard tape, and nettles should be labelled “warning: may sting”’.

Halloween reflections

Just now, the streets are full of excited children dressed as witches and ghosts, and, though Halloween will be a distant memory by the time you read this, it is interesting to reflect on the inexorable rise in popularity of this relatively new custom at the expense of Guy Fawkes Night. For an archaeologist or cultural historian, witnessing the replacement of one autumn festival by another is fascinating to watch: here is cultural change in action, rituals literally evolving before our very eyes.

Don’t touch! A witch’s athame, used to direct energy during ceremonies and rituals, or when casting a spell – and definitely not for sharing.

The place of Guy Fawkes Night as a national celebration has steadily declined since 1859, when the 1606 Thanksgiving Act, making it compulsory to celebrate the uncovering of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, was finally repealed. More recently, health and safety concerns have led to the demise of private parties remembering the Fifth of November in favour of ‘Bonfire Nights’ run by local charities on the nearest Saturday. Gunpowder, treason and plot have been written out of the story – how do you explain the political and religious issues behind the burning of a group of Catholic conspirators in this secular, multi-cultural, anti-historical age?

Dressing up as a ghost or ghoul seems a relatively harmless activity by contrast with the inflammatory implications of burning a religious fanatic, especially to children bought up on a diet of Harry Potter and TV vampires. Unlike Guy Fawkes, Halloween seems to have escaped from its religious origins to become a wholly secular occasion, no longer associated with the Christian feasts of All Saints and All Souls (though these are still widely observed in Catholic Europe and Latin America with cemetery visits and the placing of flowers on graves). Big retail chains have played their part in the usurpation of Guy Fawkes: while restrictions on firework sales mean that supermarkets can profit little from Bonfire Night, Halloween tills ring merrily as children pester parents into buying themed sweets, cloaks, masks, and witches hats. Pumpkins – once a semi-mythical fruit known only to English schoolchildren through the stories of Mark Twain – are now as ubiquitous as Christmas trees. Folklorists like to trace Halloween back to the festival of Samhain (meaning ‘summer’s end’), still celebrated in Gaelic-speaking parts of northern Europe until well into the 20th century with bonfires and rituals to ward off evil spirits. Exported to America by Irish migrants, it evolved into today’s Halloween.

Call it Samhain, All Saints, Guy Fawkes, or Halloween, what does not seem to have changed is the basic human desire to do something communal and festive at the beginning of the darker weeks of the year.

Advice on meeting a witch

Pertinent to Halloween is a new 300-page diversity guide issued to members of the Metropolitan Police, explaining the range of religions and beliefs they are likely to encounter in modern London, including atheism, witchcraft, druidry, and shamanism. The guide advises police not to assume the worst if they come across a blindfolded naked person tied to a tree; they could just have stumbled on a pagan ceremony, where, the guidance says, such activities are ‘in accordance with ritual and have the full consent of the participants’.

You should never touch a witch’s spellbook or handle her athame (a magical black-handled knife, often decorated with runes, which is used to direct energy when demarcating a magic circle, and that is the masculine counterpart to the feminine chalice). Spell books, used by witches to record their spiritual progress, are private and special and should not be touched by anyone but the author, the police are told.

What is not explained is why the police should ever need to intervene in a wickening (child-naming ceremony), or Beltane Fire Festival, or need to know that many witches are vegetarian; after all, it isn’t as if your average witch or druid goes around robbing banks or mugging people in dark alleys. On the other hand, who knows what mischief they might be up to. The late Jake Thackray, the chansonnier with the lugubrious voice who used to entertain viewers on TV’s Thats Life, is remembered for his ballad warning people not to venture out on a Saturday night in a certain Yorkshire town, and certainly not to accept the invitations of little old ladies in Sunday coats and flowerpot hats. Beneath their veneer of middle-aged respectability, he sang, ‘Elizabeth Jones and Lily O’Grady / And three or four more married ladies’, all members of the Castleford Ladies’ Magical Circle, would meet ‘in an upstairs aspidistra’d room’ to ‘practice every week unspeakable pagan rites’ including a measure of ‘devilish jiggery-poke’ and ‘dancing naked for Beelzebub’!